ONE day, and one day very soon, HIV will be contained.
There will soon be no new HIV diagnoses. The signs are already here: there are no more deaths caused directly by AIDS-related illnesses, and soon there will be reports of periods of no new transmissions of HIV and then, with tentative rumours, whispers cascading to controversial bold claims and then a final roar of confirmation that there are no more HIV transmissions on the landmass of Australia.
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Sure, there will be minor mop ups as visitors and migrants — mostly from high HIV prevalent countries — are welcomed from plane and boat to the land of PrEP, testing and TasP (treatment as prevention), but the substantive epidemic for Australians will be over. AIDS is already the polio of our times, HIV is heading the same way. And I’m excited.
For a generation and a half, our identity has been shifted into the HIV zone. All that energy, all that focus and all those resources will soon release to find another home. Maybe now we can talk of getting new stuff done and maybe now we deserve some new, bright and shiny things. We gave so much, let’s talk rewards.
I came out in 1982 by calling the South Australian Gay Counselling Service phone number. I spoke to a counsellor for a while who suggested the Thursday night “Drop In”. I went (we’ll skip the bit where I was terrified) and while I was there, Ian Hunter, now a South Australian upper house MP, dropped by with a flyer for a new Gay Youth Group he was starting .
It was a revelation that there were more than five gay people in the world and that I could, possibly, even get sex out of this. (Huzzah!) Skip forward again and it wasn’t long before I was running the Gay Youth Group, was involved as a GayLine counsellor attending national gay conferences, organising and hosting national gay youth conferences. My world was “gay” and I was loving it.
However, somewhere in my world AIDS happened, probably 1984-1986. Rumours of gay deaths, a “gay plague” — once distant, but now in Australia. Someone died and then people I know around me were dying. I gritted my teeth and I held my breath.
It was awful.
It was beyond awful. People were telling me they were dying. Friends were just disappearing overnight. Others were exhausted from the funerals they had been to that week. I didn’t feel it then because we had to keep going and it was too much anyway. We had to survive individually and as a community. Now, decades on, I feel the gut wrenching ache. A survivor, yes, but not unscathed.
In 1986 I won a $50,000 grant for a gay community centre. It wasn’t long before the AIDS Council of South Australia took it over and renamed it an AIDS Centre. The fear of the virus shifted our compass. The massive funding, professionalisation and corporatisation — represented mainly by the AIDS councils — completely spun us around. It was a necessary distraction. It couldn’t be argued. People were dying. Our dreams went on hold and we all paused with bated breath. At some point it layered the pain anew, the ache and loss compounded. It hurt.
We are a community of sexual identity and of social connections. Our nature is eternal but the power and resources of HIV are not. Today, TasP and PrEP have changed it all. That dark cloud over our community is thinning. We are getting ready to exhale.
Suspended in an amber moment betwixt breaths, our old dream, and my most cherished dream, waited. Rowena Allen, Victorian Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality, has announced funding for a Pride Centre feasibility study. It’s back.
A vision of a Pride Centre where our young can connect to the community. Where older LGBTI people can spend retirement still valued as mentors or volunteers. A lightening rod for our fecund energy where those who love community, love us, can gift their resources when they pass and know it helps the generations to come.
I see a Pride Centre as in San Francisco where there are 700 volunteers running every aspect of it. Where there is an auditorium, learning, space for community groups and sharing. Where there’s a business hub for gay business start ups, an employment service for gay business and gay employment seekers. Where all aspect of our lives can be reinforced, rewarded, praised and accepted. Where our culture lives and breaths and is shaped daily by new art, new investigation, new thought and new politics. Where our history comes out of the archives and pounces about triumphantly on display. In San Francisco, they say that their gay community centre is not a place that provides services but “where people come to exchange services”. What a beautiful definition of community that is.
So now, our breath caught up, it’s time to make real that dream once more. More importantly, to dream a gay identity that is not defined by the threat of HIV but symbolised by our new bright centre of pride.
Rodney Ellis is a long serving member of the LGBTI community, former seminal member of the South Australian AIDS Council and most recently the founder of PrEPaccessNOW. Rodney, along with HIV activist Daniel Brace, is co-author of the PrEP RAPTURE initiative to deliver zero new HIV infections by 2020. A plan for the future to be shared with community tomorrow (January 8).